The direct effect of European law

The principle of direct effect enables individuals to immediately invoke a European provision before a national or European court. This principle only relates to certain European acts. Furthermore, it is subject to several conditions.

The direct effect of European law is, along with the principle of precedence, a fundamental principle of European law. It was enshrined by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). It enables individuals to immediately invoke European law before courts, independent of whether national law test exist.

The direct effect principle therefore ensures the application and effectiveness of European law in EU countries. However, the CJEU defined several conditions in order for a European legal act to be immediately applicable. In addition, the direct effect may only relate to relations between an individual and an EU country or be extended to relations between individuals.

Definition

The direct effect of European law has been enshrined by the Court of Justice in the judgement of Van Gend en Loos of 5 February 1963. In this judgement, the Court states that European law not only engenders obligations for EU countries, but also rights for individuals. Individuals may therefore take advantage of these rights and directly invoke European acts before national and European courts. However, it is not necessary for the EU country to adopt the European act concerned into its internal legal system.

Horizontal and vertical direct effect

There are two aspects to direct effect: a vertical aspect and a horizontal aspect.

Vertical direct effect is of consequence in relations between individuals and the country. This means that individuals can invoke a European provision in relation to the country.

Horizontal direct effect is consequential in relations between individuals. This means that an individual can invoke a European provision in relation to another individual.

According to the type of act concerned, the Court of Justice has accepted either a full direct effect (i.e. a horizontal direct effect and a vertical direct effect) or a partial direct effect (confined to the vertical direct effect).

Direct effect and primary legislation

As far as primary legislation is concerned, i.e. the texts at the top of the European legal order, the Court of Justice established the principle of the direct effect in the Van Gend & Loos judgment. However, it laid down the condition that the obligations must be precise, clear and unconditional and that they do not call for additional measures, either national or European.

In the Becker judgment (Judgment of 19 January 1982), the Court of Justice rejected the direct effect where the countries have a margin of discretion, however minimal, regarding the implementation of the provision in question (Judgment of 12 December 1990, Kaefer & Procacci).

Direct effect and secondary legislation

The principle of direct effect also relates to acts from secondary legislation, that is those adopted by institutions on the basis of the founding Treaties. However, the application of direct effect depends on the type of act:

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